Mark Wigglesworth: “If we take music out of the communal experience it was invented for, it will not survive.”

Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting career is one that has been characterised by a love of sharing classical music with the widest possible audience. He has led a series of acclaimed ensembles, from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. His time as musical director at the English National Opera, cut short amidst the controversies of its funding crisis, is perhaps the most controversial example of his faith to the principles of musical creation as a shared experience.

Born in Sussex in 1964, Wigglesworth was educated at Bryanston School, a co-educational independent school in Devon. His childhood encounters with music were already pushing him towards conducting; it was a mode of expression distinct from instrumental playing. “(Playing instruments as a child) taught me a lot about music, discipline, and self-expression. But I always knew that it wasn’t really me, and I never felt as comfortable as I should have done. Conducting, strange as it may seem, always felt a more natural, and certainly an easier way for me to express my love of music.”

Wigglesworth carried this love of conducting through his time at both Manchester University and the Royal Academy of Music in London. He portrays these early years as a time of certainty about his vocation, yet one which provided a space for personal development. “Both places taught me the importance of being myself – in the end it is the only way you can stand out. At Manchester I discovered a very different life to the one I had lived so far. I think it made me a broader person and gave me a strength that allowed me to make the most of being a student in London.” These formative experiences culminated in 1989 when Wigglesworth won the  Kondrashin conducting competition in Amsterdam, a success which proved to be a foundation from which he would launch his later career.

By 1991, Wigglesworth had been appointed by John Drummond as associate conductor for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a position he held until 1993. Three years later, he became principal conductor for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. It was with this ensemble that he appeared in 1997 on the BBC 2 series Everything to Play For, leading a performance of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. He now had to tailor his approach as a conductor to highly expert orchestras.

“Philosophically speaking, conducting beginners is exactly the same job as conducting professionals. In both cases you are trying to create a musical and personal environment in which people feel free to express themselves, albeit along a path that you have set. Like any leader of any group you want to inspire people to come together without losing their individuality.

He adds, “successful musicians are unlikely to lose their power of self-expression, whilst less experienced players are going to more willingly follow your lead. But to a certain extent every orchestra has that variety within it too and your job is to try to find the balancing point between the two. Once you have that, you are in a position to influence it.’

As well as classical concert music, Wigglesworth has had prolific success in the world of opera. He led his first opera production in 1991 at the Opera Factory in London, performing Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, and by 2002 had made his first appearance with the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. He has led performances with the Welsh National Opera, Metropolitan Opera, English National Opera, and Glyndebourne. He discusses his encounters with performance nerves amidst such success.

“Nerves are a sign of respect for the situation so they should never be dismissed as unhelpful. I remind myself that it is a privilege to be nervous and that being out of your comfort zone is not something that everyone is lucky enough to ‘enjoy’.

“I am usually more nervous before a rehearsal than a performance. The rehearsal tends to be more about the relationship between orchestra and conductor, the concert is more about the relationship you all have to the music. There is something less confrontational about that.”

This universal relationship with music is something that appears to inform such controversial decisions as his resignation from the position of director at the English National Opera in March 2016. Having succeeded Edward Gardner to the position in September 2015, he was faced with a company under stress after funding cuts of £5m a year. With the company’s chorus and technicians under the threats of pay cuts and redundancy, Wigglesworth resigned his position under the premise that such a break-up of the company’s core members would be against the inclusive message which it fostered in its musical performances. His perspective is that classic music must become more appeal to different types of people in order to ensure its survival.

“We have to broaden the repertoire, and create more musical variety within the experience; an overture, concerto, and symphony by three dead white European men doesn’t sound that attractive to me. We have to find a way of proving to people that the concert experience can be inclusive without losing any of the intensity of the occasion. In the end it will come down to the performers themselves being as open and welcoming to the public as possible whilst remaining committed to the extraordinary perfection of the music we play and the highest ambition we have to play it to the best of our ability.’

Although positing performance as a space in which such change can occur, Wigglesworth is also clear that changes must occur too in our attitudes to musical education.

 “I think adults are increasingly aware that classical music is something they are welcome to take part in. And that has to be a good thing. But there is a long, long way to go before the majority realise how much they would get from it. They will never do that if they were not allowed the opportunity to learn an instrument as a child.

“If the crisis in musical education is not reversed, classical music will become a tiny footnote in the history of our species. Governments who ignore this will be part of that footnote.”

Wigglesworth’s contribution to the modern presentation of classical music has been highly acclaimed, winning him an 2017 an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera. Yet the evidence of his writing, most notably in the publication of his 2018 book The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters, displays a desire to justify the importance of the role upon which he has built his career.

“I had always wanted to help people understand that conducting was not as mystifying as it looked. That if the contexts could be explained, the relationship conductors have with orchestras, music, audiences, and themselves would be very obvious.

“Everyone can visualise a conductor at work, but considering how familiar people are with what we look like, it is surprising how little is known about what we do. I hope the book illuminates this for anyone who is curious about leadership, not just musicians or conductors.

“Writing down thoughts I had had for many years allowed me to really engage in what I thought and I why. But I think the best bits in the book are the paragraphs that I needed to understand better myself before I could write them down.”

The ‘silent’ voice of the conductor that Wigglesworth explores in his book is one which must paradoxically both control an orchestra and allow its individuality. The difficulty the conductor faces is in creating a self-effacement while standing centre-stage.

“Most conductors will tell you that they don’t seek to ‘interpret’ the music, but simply want to play what is written. The trouble is that the vagueness of musical notation means that it is never especially clear what ‘what is written’ should sound like. And everyone takes a different path between what is written and what they want to hear.

“For me the most important thing is that the musicians are sincere in how they play the notes. By that I mean that there is no sentimental self-consciousness of what they are doing but a genuine and natural response to what they are feeling. The moment you play something as you think you are expected to, it becomes a second-hand expression.

“It is easier for pop musicians to be sincere because often they wrote the music themselves, but even when they didn’t, their involvement with the creation of the piece is arguably more personal than it is for a classical musician. But classical musicians cannot afford to lose touch with their personality, even if this does arise out of a necessary respect for the composer.

“The most important thing a conductor brings to a piece of music is a sense of structure. This is something that a large group of players can find hard to agree on and one individual, leading the journey as it were, can help create the right sense of direction and maintain a constant proportion between the various increases and decreases in tension within the music.’

Amidst calls for inclusivity in the world of classical music, the role of the conductor, as one of leadership, has come under scrutiny as a space which must be diversified. Wigglesworth discusses the particular call for greater female representation within the position.

“There is a long overdue but rapid change in how many female conductors there now are. There is no musical or physical reason why female conductors should be considered less qualified to do the job. Given how much of the role is about balancing egos, your own included, there is a possibility that this is something women are better at that men. Time will tell! Music is not gender specific. Musicians cannot afford to be either.”

In his own conducting, Wigglesworth has performed a wide variety of music, and he speaks about his own preferences with a will to maintain variety and breadth.

“I love a broad range of music and would struggle to over specialise in repertoire, or genre for that matter. At its best, the number of people involved in an opera performance makes a successful one all the more special and if that opera is by Wagner the probability that every aspect of your musicianship has been stretched and inspired makes that a pinnacle for me. But if the conditions are not conducive to achieving all you want, it can be less upsetting if the music is something you care slightly less about. In a symphonic sense, the perfect balance that you need to create between head and heart when playing Brahms’ music makes his symphonies the most challenging, and therefore the most rewarding if you succeed.”

His love of Brahms has been made permanent through his recording of the Brahms piano concertos with Stephen Hough. Indeed, his recordings are not limited to Brahms; he has for instance recorded the complete cycle of Shostakovitch Symphonies with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, as well as Mahler’s sixth and tenth Symphonies with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and Britten’s Peter Grimes with Glyndebourne. With recording increasingly becoming the principal mode of our everyday contact with musical performance, Wigglesworth emphasises the importance of retaining within such dissemination the vitality of a live experience.

“All classical music is live at the point at which it is played. There is nothing wrong with people listening to that at home but ultimately music will survive as something it was created for in the first place, hundreds of thousands of years ago. Music brings communities together. It connects us with shared stories, by making us realise that emotions are universal and not personal. It makes us less alone. If we take music out of the communal experience it was invented for, it will not survive.”

Wigglesworth continues to bring his principles to performance on a large stage, with future plans including a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the BBC Philharmonic as part of the orchestra’s 2019-20 season. He provides a vision in which classical music, removed from preconceptions of elitism, can be part of an artistic culture which, at its core, speaks to a universal audience.

“Music is an international language that knows no borders. In a time in which petty nationalism appears to be such a force, I hope that music can offer solace to all who wish to remain culturally respectful and globally connected. And more importantly, serve as a tool to help people look outwards and celebrate the diversity and equality that is the essence of the human species.”

Additional reporting by Jade Yarrow.